Ross River Dena take Ottawa to court

The Ross River Dena Council is suing Ottawa. Documents filed with Yukon Supreme Court on October 16 claim the federal government is failing its…

The Ross River Dena Council is suing Ottawa.

Documents filed with Yukon Supreme Court on October 16 claim the federal government is failing its fiduciary and constitutional duties to the Yukon First Nation, even though the Ross River Dena have not signed a land claim settlement.

Land claim negotiations with the Kaska Tribal Council, which includes the Ross River Dena, failed in 2002 and have not resumed.

Since then and before, several mining projects have proceeded within the 110,000 square kilometres the Kaska claim as its traditional territory — without compensation paid to First Nation groups.

The Kaska had a bilateral agreement with the Yukon government to share resource revenues, but it expired in August 2005.

The Ross River Dena lawsuit, which names the attorney general of Canada as defendant, claims that Ottawa has a duty to negotiate aboriginal title, rights and interests to the Kaska traditional territory that comprises 23 per cent of the Yukon land mass.

“(Ross River Dena Council has) suffered loss and harm and continue to suffer loss and harm on the ongoing breach,” the lawsuit says, citing British Crown documents from the 1800s that recognize the Kaska’s status and rights as an indigenous people.

“To date, the claims of the Kaska, including the claims of the (Ross River Dena Council), to compensate for lands required for settlement have not been considered or settled in conformity to the 1870 order or otherwise.”

Furthermore, the council holds a multimillion-dollar debt to the government that it wants forgiven.

Ottawa loaned the Ross River Dena funds to negotiate a land claim, but the council claims the loans are “void and unenforceable” because the negotiations expired.

The same principle applies to funds lent to the Ross River Dena through the Council of Yukon First Nations and the Council of Yukon Indians, the lawsuit says.

The Ross River Dena are seeking punitive and exemplary damages for the breach, but the lawsuit does not specify how much compensation the council is seeking.

Ross River Dena chief Jack Caesar declined comment.

Stephen Walsh, lawyer for the Ross River Dena, was not available for comment.

Federal land claim negotiators with Indian and Northern Affairs Canada will not comment on a case that is before the courts.

Together with the White River First Nation, the two Kaska bands — the Ross River Dena and the Liard First Nation — are the only three of 14 Yukon First Nations that do not have a land claim settlement with Ottawa.

With files from Tim Querengesser.